Category Archives: Dashiell Hammett

Well, She Wrote Me a Letter*

Writing letters isn’t as common as it used to be. And that makes sense, when you think of how easy it is to email or, if it’s more urgent, text or call someone. And, yet, letters used to be the backbone of communication.

They’ve also served an interesting purpose in crime fiction: to sound an alarm, so to speak, and ask for help. There are plenty of examples of stories where someone writes a letter that gets the sleuth involved in a case. These are just a few instances; I know you’ll think of more.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Violet Hunter writes a letter to Sherlock Holmes, asking his advice on whether she should take a new position as governess for a six-year-old boy. Jephro Rucastle, who has made the offer, has also made a few odd requests, and he unsettles Violet in a few ways. But the offer is a good one. When Holmes hears the whole story, he advises his new client not to take the job. She’s of a mind to take that advice, too. But then, Rucastle increases the offer to a number that she cannot resist. Holmes knows he can’t stop Violet from taking the job. But he does tell her that if she needs him, all she has to do is let him know. Before long, she does just that. Things have gone from odd to eerie, and even dangerous, and Violet asks for help. Holmes and Watson travel to the Rucastle home just in time to solve a deadly mystery.

Agatha Christie uses letters in more than one of her stories. In The Murder on the Links, for instance, Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. Renauld says that his life is in danger, and he begs Poirot to come and help. Usually, Poirot is not much for being summoned (right, fans of Dead Man’s Mirror?), but this letter gets his attention, and he and Captain Hastings go to France. By the time they get there, though, it’s too late: Renauld has been murdered. Poiorot and Hastings look into the matter and find out the truth about the case. And it turns out to be more complicated than it seems on the surface.

The real action in Dashiell Hammett’s short story, Fly Paper, begins when Major Waldo Hambleton hires the Continental Detective Agency to find his daughter, Sue, who’s cut off all contact with her family. She’s been reportedly mixed up with some very dangerous people, so Hambleton wants to be sure she’s all right. Then, he gets a letter from Sue, asking for money. That letter spurs him on, and he points the private investigator towards Sue’s last known address. It turns out the address belongs to a thug named Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Wales, and he’s not the only thug Sue’s been associated with lately. Slowly, the detective (who is not named in the story) tracks down Sue’s actual address, but by the time he does, it’s too late: Sue is dead of what turns out to be arsenic poisoning. Now this missing person case has become a murder (or suicide) investigation.

In Catriona McPherson’s The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains, private investigator Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver gets a letter from Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour that begins this way:

‘Dear Mrs. Gilver,
…My husband is going to kill me, and I would rather he didn’t.’


The letter goes on to say that Lollie fears for her life, and to ask Dandy to investigate surreptitiously by taking a position as a maid in the Balfour household.  Dandy takes the case and goes on a fake ‘interview’ to get the details from her new client. She soon moves in and starts investigating. But the next night, someone murders Lollie’s husband, Philip ‘Pip.’ Now, Dandy is involved in a murder investigation that turns out to be much more complicated than it seemed on the surface.

Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency introduces Botswana’s only female private investigator, Mma Precious Ramotswe. In one of her cases, she receives a letter from a teacher named Ernest Pakotati, whose eleven-year-old son has gone missing. The letter is heartbreaking, and Mma Ramotswe is moved by it. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. Among many other things, this disappearance could be related to local witchcraft, which is a politically very sensitive issue. It’s going to take tact and perseverance to find out what has happened to the boy. But Mr. Pakoti is desperate to get his son back if that’s possible, and Mma Ramotswe is determined to do just that.

And then there’s Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic. In that novel, which takes place just after WW II, we meet idealistic young attorney Regina Robichard. She’s working for the NAACP in New York City, and hoping to make a difference there. Everything changes when the NAACP gets a letter from reclusive author M.P. Calhoun. As it happens, Calhoun wrote one of Robichard’s best-loved books from childhood, so she’s intrigued. In the letter, Calhoun alleges that a returning black veteran named Joe Howard Wilson was murdered. It’s clear from the letter that Calhoun wants the murder investigated, so Robichard decides to make the trip to Revere, Mississippi, where the alleged crime took place. As she starts to ask questions, Robichard learns that things are not always as they seem, and that she has much to learn.

There isn’t as much use of letters these days as there was. But they do offer the crime writer a lot of opportunities for getting the sleuth (and the reader) involved in a case. This is just a sampling. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wayne Carson’s The Letter.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catriona McPherson, Dashiell Hammett, Deborah Johnson

The Archetypal Man*

Over the years, there’ve been some interesting character types that have become an integral part of crime fiction. They’re almost mythical, in a way, because we know the reality is a lot more complex than the myth. It’s a bit like the myth vs the reality of the famous shootout at the OK Corral. And, yet, those mythical characters can add to a story. And they’ve helped shape our perception of crime-fictional characters.

One mythical sort of character is the crusading lawyer personified in Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. On television, Mason was, of course, portrayed by Raymond Burr. This character fights for the defendant, comes up with all sorts of strategies, surprise witnesses, and so on, and works to get justice for the client. The reality is, of course, much more complex than what was presented in the TV series, especially. And modern crime-fictional attorneys show that complexity. Most attorneys (both in real life and in crime fiction) do want to do their jobs well. They want to win their cases, and they do try to do so in an ethical way. But sometimes, their clients are guilty. Sometimes, they do things that aren’t exactly above-board, so to speak. And they don’t always win their cases. But many people still want to believe in the Perry Mason type of attorney.

Another interesting archetypal character is the PI personified by Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He’s a loner, somewhat cynical, but still idealistic enough to want to do the right thing. He doesn’t let people get the better of him and stays just aloof enough not to get too personally entangled in a case, even if a ‘bombshell’ femme fatale tempts him. There are plenty of fictional PIs like that, of course. I’m sure you could name as many as I could. Crime fiction fans know, though, that PIs and the PI life are a lot more complex. For one thing, PIs come in lots of different shapes and sizes, so to speak. They do want to do their jobs well, by and large, but not all of them are fierce crusaders for justice. Some PIs are, indeed, susceptible to temptation. Some are extremely cynical, with their only focus on their fees, and so on. Crime fiction shows us this complexity, and most readers want that. At the same time, though, when we think of the PI, lots of us think of that Sam Spade archetype.

There’s also the mythical figure of the sheriff, especially in US western novels. You know the type, I’m sure: fighting for justice, facing off against a gang of ‘bad guys,’ and so on. If you’ve read novels by J.A. Jance, Craig Johnson, or Bill Crider (to name only three), you know that there’s more to being a sheriff than is portrayed in television and film westerns. And today’s sheriff characters are more complex. They’re not all male, they’re not all white, and their cases aren’t all clear-cut. Fictional sheriffs are often faced with ‘bad guys’ that aren’t so easy to spot, and aren’t always simplistic. Most sheriffs try to uphold the law in the best way they can, and they all do it a little differently. And, yet, despite these shades of differences, we still have a mental image of the sheriff as the lone force of good against the evil [Name of Gang] Boys.

There’s also the mythical loner/drifter who comes into town and ends up righting wrongs. I’m thinking, for instance, of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. This sort of character’s appeal arguably comes in part from being somewhat mysterious. We don’t ever really know everything about that person. But we do know that the ‘stranger in town’ is ultimately on the side of the angels. Of course, loners/drifters are more complex than it seems on the surface (we see that, actually, as the Jack Reacher series evolves). But there’s just something about the ‘stranger in town who ends up saving everything’ that appeals.

There are other mythical/archetypal characters, too, in crime fiction. But one character who isn’t enshrined in this way is the police detective. If you think about it, crime fiction includes a wide, wide array of police characters. There are bumbling cops (e.g. the way Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed police), dedicated detectives (like Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp), and ‘everyman’ police officers (e.g. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police). And not all of the police characters are depicted as sympathetic, either. From James Ellroy’s Los Angeles trilogy to Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road and plenty in between, there are ‘bent’ police officers, too. Perhaps the reason there may not be an archetypal police character is exactly that there’s this much variety.

A mythical/archetypal character can be limiting. It’s taken several decades, for instance, for fictional PIs to include women, non-whites, LGBTQ+ characters, and so on. And there may not be as much room for depths and layers to a mythical character as there is to a different sort of character. But they serve an important purpose. They give us a mental image of a lawyer, or a PI, or….  And they have some interesting qualities that can add to a story.

What’s your view? Do you think of those mythical characters (like Sam Spade or Perry Mason) when you think of a crime-fictional PI or lawyer? If you’re a writer, do you get inspired by those characters?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Judee Sill.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Crider, Craig Johnson, Dashiell Hammett, Ed McBain, Erle Stanley Gardner, Garry Disher, J.A. Jance, James Ellroy, Lee Child

I’ve Seen the Film, I’ve Read the Book*

As this is posted, it’s 77 years since the release of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. There are differences between the film and the Dashiell Hammett story on which it’s based; and, for many people the film has eclipsed the story. When a lot of people think of Sam Spade, they think of Humphrey Bogart, and the events in the film, rather than the original story. And there are, of course, many people who’ve seen the film, but haven’t read the original story. For them, the film is the story.

And that’s not the only case where that’s happened. There are many stories and novels where the film adaptation has become at least as well-known and well-regarded as the original story – in some cases, even more so. In the hands of a skilled director, the characters can come alive for viewers. And, if the director evokes the story effectively (even if some things, or a lot of things, are changed), the effect can be a very strong film. For those who prefer to experience their crime fiction on screen rather than in a book, this can make some of those classic stories more easily available.

For example, Alfred Hitchock’s 1963 film The Birds is based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same name. While many people have read Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and perhaps some of du Maurier’s other work, that particular short story was arguably eclipsed by the film. Millions of people have seen the film, and some consider it one of Hitchock’s best efforts. It’s said that du Maurier didn’t like the adaptation at all, and the adaptation is quite different to the original story. Even though it isn’t much like the short story that inspired it, there was something about that screen version that captured people’s attention. And Hitchcock fans know that that’s not the only example of his paying tribute to a novel or a short story.

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film The Godfather is, as you’ll know, based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name. The Puzo novel was very well-received and remained a top seller for quite a long time. The film adaptation had, perhaps, an even wider reach. It’s been said that it’s one of the greatest films made, and it’s certainly become a part of our culture. For many, many people, when they think of Michael Corleone, they think of Al Pacino. When they think of Don Vito Corleone, they think of Marlon Brando. That’s especially true if they’ve seen the film, but not read the book.

We might say a similar thing about Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel, The Silence of the Lambs, and Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film adaptation of the same name.  The original novel was well-received, to quite a lot of critical and commercial acclaim. But, for many people, Hannibel Lecter ‘came alive’ when they saw the film. Arguably, the film medium allowed for several ‘jolts’ and visual impact that the book didn’t. And plenty of people believe that Anthony Hopkins had the role of his career as Lecter. And perhaps that’s part of the reason for which the film, as much as the novel (perhaps more?) has become a big part of our culture.

Several of Stephen King’s novels (Carrie, The Shining, and Misery, to name just three) have been adapted for the screen. Of course, the novels themselves have been critically praised and commercially successful in and of themselves. But the films have also garnered very wide audiences. This might be one of the cases where the film and the book are about equal in terms of their followings. Even so, it shows how much reach a well-done film can have.

I’m sure that you can think of many other examples – more than I could – of films that equal or eclipse the book in terms of reach. Even if, like me, you generally prefer the book to the film, there are some cases where the film medium allows for nuances that the book may not. There are also cases where the film gets to the heart of the story in the way that the book may not.

But there may be other factors, too. For example, an actor may be an inspired choice to play a character and may carry off the role brilliantly. I’ll bet you can think of several cases where a particular actor is a character to you. I know I can. This has a way of making a film memorable. Or, there may be a certain scene in a film that’s a bit harder to depict in writing, and that makes a film stay with the viewer.

What do you think? Are there films you’ve seen that eclipsed the book for you (if you’ve experienced both)? Have you seen films that then inspired you to read the book? Certainly, The Maltese Falcon is an integral part of film culture, and it’s gotten woven into the larger culture, too. How do you think that happens?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jigsaw.


Filed under Alfred Hitchcock, Daphne du Maurier, Dashiell Hammett, Francis Ford Coppola, John Huston, Jonathan Demme, Mario Puzo, Stephen King, Thomas Harris

These Days There’s a Million Ways to be Pulled and Torn, to be Misdirected*

Real life illusionists such as Penn and Teller (yes, that’s the duo in the ‘photo), and fictional ones such as Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto know something very important. People find it hard to pay attention to a lot of things at the same time. So, if you focus your audience’s attention on one thing, they’re less likely to notice something else you may be doing. It’s called misdirection, and these people are experts at it.

Misdirection is an important part of crime fiction, too. Authors use it all the time. In fact, there’s probably a book’s worth of commentary on the way crime writers manipulate readers’ attention. So do fictional characters. After all, if you’re a fictional murderer, it suits you very well if everyone’s paying attention to something else, so that you can get away with your crime.

Misdirection is a part of many of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories. I’ll just give one example. Christie fans will know there are plenty of others. In Death in the Clouds, a group of people boards a plane for a flight from Paris to London. Among them is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who goes by the name of Madame Giselle. Just before the flight lands, one of the stewards goes around to the different passengers to give them their meal bills. That’s when he discovers that Madame Giselle is dead. At first, it looks as though she’s had a serious allergic reaction to a wasp sting (and there is a wasp on the plane). But Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same flight, notices some things that suggest she was deliberately poisoned. And so it proves to be. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, so Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out which passenger is the killer. And it turns out that the murderer used misdirection quite effectively to carry out the crime.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to Frank Cairnes, a detective novelist who writes under the name of Felix Lane. As the story begins, he is distraught over the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie’, who was killed six months earlier in a hit-and-run incident. Cairnes decides to find and kill the man who murdered his son and sets out to learn who that person was. After a time, he establishes that the driver of the car is a man named George Rattery. So, he contrives an introduction by starting a romance with Rattery’s sister, and soon gets to know Rattery. He’s decided to kill Rattery by drowning him during a sailing trip. The only problem is that Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary, so he knows Cairnes’ plan. He tells Cairnes that if anything happens to him, the police will know who is responsible. Cairnes counters with the threat that if the police read the diary, they will also know that Rattery killed Martie. With the two men at a stalemate, they return to the Rattery home. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes contacts PI and poet Nigel Strangeways to ask for his help. He knows he’ll be suspected of murder, but he says he’s innocent. After all, he claims, why would he plan to poison a victim after already having planned to drown him? What’s more, there turn out to be several other possibilities when it comes to suspects. In the end, Strangeways finds that the killer has used misdirection to keep from being caught.

Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank introduces her sleuth, Amelia Peabody. In the novel, Miss Peabody decides to take a tour of the Middle East. When her companion falls ill and can’t join her, she fears she’ll have to cancel her trip (this story takes place in the days before it was considered appropriate for ‘proper ladies’ to travel alone). Her problems seem to be solved when she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes. It turns out that Miss Barton-Forbes has been abandoned by her lover, and now has to make her way in the world as best she can. She’s delighted and grateful at the chance to serve as Miss Peabody’s companion, and the two set out for Egypt. That’s where they meet archaeologist brothers Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, who are working on an excavation in Amarna. Miss Peabody has an interest in ancient ruins, and is well-informed on them, so when the two women stop at the excavation site, they decide to stay on for a bit. That’s how they get drawn into a bizarre case. First, a mummy that the team has found seems to disappear. Then, villagers and other locals report that a mummy has been seen at night. Other strange and disturbing things begin to happen, and it’s now clear that someone wants the Emerson excavation to stop. If the team is to stay alive, and continue the work, they’re going to have to find out the truth. And it turns out that someone has used misdirection to get everyone frightened about the mummy, so that the real motive for what’s going on will stay hidden.

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles, who live in San Francisco are on a visit to New York City. By chance, Nick, who is a former PI, is spotted by Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client. She’s worried because her father, Clyde Wynant, seems to have gone missing. Later, Nick gets a visit from Wynant’s lawyer, who thinks he’s in New York to track Wynant down. That’s not the case, but Nick seems to be getting more and more drawn in to the matter. The next day, Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolf, is found dead. Now, Nick’s even more deeply drawn into the case. As it happens, there are several suspects in the murder, any one of whom might be guilty. Misdirection plays an important part in this story as we find out the truth about Wynant’s disappearance and his secretary’s murder.

And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is saddened when he finds out that a former client, Dr. Suresh Jha, has been killed. Jha was at a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when something extraordinary happened. Witnesses say that the goddess Kali appeared, and stabbed Jha. To Kali’s devotees, this makes sense, since Jha was dedicated to science and to debunking people who used religion and spiritualism to deceive people. But Puri doesn’t think Kali really appeared and committed murder. So, he starts to ask questions. And he discovers quite a lot of misdirection as he finds out what really happened.

See what I mean? Misdirection is critical to crime fiction and crime writers. Wait a second – what was that? Look over there!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Elizabeth Peters, Elly Griffiths, Nicholas Blake, Tarquin Hall

I Took a Little Risk*

As this is posted, it’s 158 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. As you know, it was a groundbreaking book that still has implications. It contributed to major changes in our thinking about our species, our history, and a lot more.

It was a risky gamble for Darwin, and for the John Murray Company, the book’s publisher. Darwin is, of course, not the only author to take risks with his writing. Plenty of crime fiction authors have, too. Whenever an author breaks new ground with a book, she or her runs the risk of a complete failure, both critically and commercially. But sometimes, those gambles pay off.

Consider, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle. His Sherlock Holmes was arguably the first fictional detective who used the scientific method and scientific processes to solve mysteries. It was a major shift in detection, and there was no guarantee that it would pay off. But it did. Holmes remains one of the most popular characters in fiction history. In fact, fans loved Holmes so much that there was a major public outcry when Doyle tried to end the Holmes stories with The Final Problem. He was more or less forced by public opinion (and the publisher) to bring Holmes back in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Agatha Christie also took major risks with her writing. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, we are introduced to retired magnate Roger Ackroyd and his household. When he is stabbed one night in his study, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, believes that he is innocent; so, she asks for help from Hercule Poirot, who’s recently retired (or so he thinks) to the same village. Poirot looks closely at other possibilities for the murderer, and finds that virtually every other character is hiding something. In the end, he finds out who the killer is. The solution to this mystery turned many of the detective story conventions on their heads, so to speak. In fact, Christie got quite a lot of criticism for not ‘playing fair.’ And yet, this novel remains one of her most popular releases. And, if you read the story carefully, you see that all of the clues are there.

Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me was also quite risky. In it, we are introduced to Lou Ford, Deputy Sheriff of Central City, Texas. He’s well-enough liked in town, if considered a little dull. Certainly, he’s not the kind of person who draws a lot of attention. Then, a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland is brutally beaten. After that, there’s a murder. Now, everything’s changed, and we learn that Ford is hiding something – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ This is arguably one of the first novels in which we really get to know a serial killer, and get ‘inside that person’s head.’ It was a major gamble for Thompson; in fact, Stephen King has commented on Thompson’s bravery in letting himself see everything and write it down. The novel may not be for everyone, but it broke crime-fictional ground, and changed many people’s thinking about what a crime story could be.

Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest was also a gamble. It’s often (‘though not always) regarded as the first ‘hardboiled’ PI novel. Even today, people often associate Hammett with that sub-genre. Until that time, most crime novels avoided a lot of violence, and didn’t really look at the seamy side of life. Hammett introduced a different sort of protagonist, and a different sort of perspective, and there was resistance to it. There was also no guarantee that people would take to this sort of story. But, of course, they did. Today, the ‘hardboiled’ story is among the more popular of sub-genres.

Many people argue that Robert B. Parker also changed our thinking about the private-detective story. His Spenser series doesn’t just focus on clues, whodunit, and ‘red herrings.’ Rather, it explores relationships and character development, too, in a way that innovated that sub-genre. And plenty of more recent PIs have been inspired by that innovation to create a new kind of protagonist.

These are by no means the only authors who have taken risks by changing our thinking about what a crime novel could be. I’m sure that you could think of many more than I could. And, if you think about, every author takes a risk. What if people don’t like the direction the novel takes? What if an author who’s had success with one series tries something completely different – and it fails? Fiction writing, like scientific writing, takes a certain amount of courage no matter what one’s topic. And writing that takes our thinking in new directions requires even more courage. Just consider what we might have missed had Darwin not taken the risks he took.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns and Money.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Robert B. Parker